Saturday, January 03, 2015

Saturday Afternoon Links

Assorted content for your weekend reading.

- Robin Sears offers his theory that the upcoming federal election could represent a meaningful referendum on competing visions for Canada - and Paul Wells seems to expect much the same. But while that might make for a useful statement of the actual consequences of electing the anti-government Cons as opposed to having a progressive coalition materialize, it's hard to see a clash of visions represent the core of the campaign - particularly when the party currently in power won't admit to its active hostility toward social programs and the environment, while another major party seems to be planning to hold off on deciding what it believes in until it has no choice but to do so.

- In the alternative, Crawford Kilian suggests that we should make 2015 the year to mock the Harper Cons in advance of the impending federal election.

- In keeping with that theme south of the border, Dylan Matthews identifies the worst argument for wealth inequality yet. And Danny Feingold interviews Bill de Blasio about the growing recognition that inequality affects everybody.

- Meanwhile, Michael Lewis again discusses the psychological dimension of wealth inequality:
A team of researchers at the New York State Psychiatric Institute surveyed 43,000 Americans and found that, by some wide margin, the rich were more likely to shoplift than the poor. Another study, by a coalition of nonprofits called the Independent Sector, revealed that people with incomes below 25 grand give away, on average, 4.2 percent of their income, while those earning more than 150 grand a year give away only 2.7 percent. A UCLA neuroscientist named Keely Muscatell has published an interesting paper showing that wealth quiets the nerves in the brain associated with empathy: If you show rich people and poor people pictures of kids with cancer, the poor people's brains exhibit a great deal more activity than the rich people's. (An inability to empathize with others has just got to be a disadvantage for any rich person seeking political office, at least outside of New York City.) "As you move up the class ladder," says Keltner, "you are more likely to violate the rules of the road, to lie, to cheat, to take candy from kids, to shoplift, and to be tightfisted in giving to others. Straightforward economic analyses have trouble making sense of this pattern of results."

[There is an obvious] chicken-and-egg question to ask here. But it is beginning to seem that the problem isn't that the kind of people who wind up on the pleasant side of inequality suffer from some moral disability that gives them a market edge. The problem is caused by the inequality itself: It triggers a chemical reaction in the privileged few. It tilts their brains. It causes them to be less likely to care about anyone but themselves or to experience the moral sentiments needed to be a decent citizen.

Or even a happy one. Not long ago, an enterprising professor at the Harvard Business School named Mike Norton persuaded a big investment bank to let him survey the bank's rich clients. (The poor people in the survey were millionaires.) In a forthcoming paper, Norton and his colleagues track the effects of getting money on the happiness of people who already have a lot of it: A rich person getting even richer experiences zero gain in happiness. That's not all that surprising; it's what Norton asked next that led to an interesting insight. He asked these rich people how happy they were at any given moment. Then he asked them how much money they would need to be even happier. "All of them said they needed two to three times more than they had to feel happier," says Norton.

The evidence overwhelmingly suggests that money, above a certain modest sum, does not have the power to buy happiness, and yet even very rich people continue to believe that it does: The happiness will come from the money they don't yet have.
- Finally, Frances Woolley nicely summarizes how our relationship to possessions affects economic theory.

Friday, January 02, 2015

Musical interlude

Adam Szabo & Willem De Roo - Medusa

Friday Morning Links

Assorted content for your Friday reading.

- Mariana Mazzucato discusses how inequality and financialization have teamed up to create an economy with little upside and serious risks for most people:
(W)hat should we do in 2015? Financial reform–aimed at bringing finance and the real economy together again–must thus critically first study the facts, not the myths, in the real economy. Periods of longest stable growth in most economies [occur] when medium to large firms have invested their profits in R&D and human capital. What is needed today is long-term committed finance, in the form of public banks (such as German’s KfW or Brazil’s BNDES) and a taxation policy that fosters long-termism, rather than constant tax cuts for speculators. And while taxation policy must be progressive and not regressive[, it's] fundamental to also build those institutions that can continue to negotiate a better deal for labour, in a period in which the profit wage ratio [continues] to [soar]. Trade unions are not the problem, they are the answer–and must of course become the key pillars fighting for innovation led growth rather than the status quo, no matter how much the latter might be good for a select few.

Until we bring together innovation policy, financial reform, and the strengthening of institutions that can fight on the behalf of labour (the wage share of income), we will continue to obsess over ‘fixing finance’, while leaving the real economy as sick as before: rising inequality, many small weak firms, and a few large financialised ones, asking for more and more while giving back less and less. The perfect recipe for the next financial casino and… bust.
- Meanwhile, James Bloodworth writes that inequality in the UK is making social mobility an increasingly distant dream. And the CCPA studies the increased income disparity between CEOs and the rest of us in Canada.

- David Reevely discusses research showing a connection between payday lenders, poor health and mortality rates. And Jennie Smash recounts the difficulties facing the "sort-of-poor" who are being left behind in a system designed to direct wealth upward.

- Frank Graves writes about the forces which will shape Canada's federal election in 2015. Mary Agnes Welch reports that Manitoba voters (like many others) would much prefer real services like child care spaces rather than more of the Cons' tax baubles. And Jenny Uechl interviews Naomi Klein about the electoral choices we'll need to make in order to end the continued erosion of our society and our environment.

- Finally, Robert Reich argues that our most important political debates should be focused less on the size of government than the question of who government is intended to serve. 

New column day

Here, on how we'll soon be seeing both federal and provincial governments alike try to block out their real history with glossy ad campaigns - and why we shouldn't let them get away with the plan.

For further reading...
- Torstar reported here on the Cons' use of public money to generate fake news and how it fits in to the broader federal advertising machine. And Gregory Thomas discussed their shift toward using public money for communications rather than programs here.
- Mike De Souza wrote about the CRA's newly-ordered destruction of employees' text records here. And Paul McLeod exposed the CFIA's attempt to hide internal ethical breaches.
- And CBC discusses the cancellation of a few months' worth of lean consulting contracts here, while smart meters continue to pose dangers even while their removal is in progress. But the larger costs of both Sask Party schemes will be felt for plenty of time to come.

Thursday, January 01, 2015

Thursday Morning Links

This and that to start your year.

- Ian Welsh comments on the challenges we face in trying to turn wealth increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few into a better world for everybody:
The irony is that we have, again, produced a cornucopia.  We have the potential to create an abundance society, the world over and eventually off this world.

We have much of the technology necessary, and we could direct our research and development towards the remaining technology we need.

Instead, we rely on markets controlled by oligarchs and central banks captured by oligarchs to make most of our decisions about our future.

We have systematically dis-empowered ourselves. Going from mass conscription armies and industrial warfare and mass markets driven by relatively egalitarian citizen-consumers in democracies, to oligarchies with unrepresentative armies increasingly filled with drones (and effective ground combat drones will be here in 10 to 20 years), surveillance states bordering on police states, and democracies which are hollow, where we can choose from Oligarchical faction one, two or maybe three.  The differences between them, while real, are within the broad agreement to keep giving the rich more.

And so, we come back to, how do we change the direction of our societies?  Our society, for the world is more and more one society.
- And Dacher Keltner discusses the connection between wealth, inequality, and the empathy deficit which offers the most obvious opportunity for improving the society in which we live:

- Meanwhile, Cameron Roberts makes the case for a guaranteed annual income from an environmental perspective. Zoe Williams writes that we should appreciate the ability to benefit from paying our fair share of taxes toward public benefits. And Bernie Sanders nicely summarizes the progressive vision we should be working toward.
- The Star's editorial board writes that we can't expect meaningful social progress in Canada without a federal government willing to work toward it.

- Finally, Paul Adams highlights Preston Manning's eagerness to throw democracy out the window in Alberta as a compelling example of phony right-wing populism designed only to entrench corporate interests. But Owen Jones is hopeful that genuine popular movements are building up which can offer alternatives to business as usual.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Wednesday Morning Links

Miscellaneous material for your mid-week reading.

- Alex Himelfarb and Jordan Himelfarb write about the growing appetite for stronger public services and the taxes needed to fund them in 2014 - even if we're a long way from having that translated into real policy changes:
Certainly tax phobia has framed our politics and shaped our governments. Our politicians of every stripe seem to believe that Canadians want tax cuts, whatever the costs, and won’t accept tax increases, whatever the benefits. This austerity mindset stunts the political imagination, making us doubt that we can do great things or much of anything together just when more imagination is exactly what we need.

But the costs of decades of tax cuts and austerity are piling up and there’s a growing chorus arguing that reversing course on taxes is key to our future well-being.
Over this past year, however, some unexpected voices have started to talk about taxes not as a burden, part of the problem, but as a key part of the solution to our challenges. Even some organizations that have always embraced and promoted the low-tax austerity agenda have started to wonder out loud whether this has all gone too far. The IMF, the OECD, bond rating agency Standard and Poor’s — past champions of austerity — have all published reports this year making the case that the costs of tax cuts now outweigh whatever benefits they were supposed to deliver.
(T)hese business-friendly organizations are also worried that reduced revenue for public investment is undermining economic growth in other ways. What does business really need? Better transportation and communications infrastructure or more tax cuts? And are we making the investments in science and technology essential to our future health and prosperity?

Most important, these studies show that higher and more progressive taxes are not the job killer that we are constantly warned about. Inequality is. Growing inequality strangles demand for goods and services, depletes our human capital and diverts needed resources to tackling its adverse consequences — crime, illness, social disruption. Of course, we have to take into account the behavioural consequences of tax increases, but, we are warned, if we don’t turn things around soon, our problems will just get worse. And with aging infrastructure and aging populations, much worse.
- Meanwhile, Suzanne Daley discusses the continued disastrous effects of austerity in Greece. And Peter Newcomb and Alex Sazanov document the concentration of wealth, as the world's 400 richest people added $92 billion to their already-preposterous fortunes in 2014.

- Meteor Blades highlights the reality of low-paying work in the U.S. (with Canada also ranking among the developed countries with the most low-paying jobs), while Sarah Petrescu's series on poverty notes how multiple jobs may not keep a worker afloat.

- Finally, Stan Sorscher comments on the effect of the new generation of corporate rights agreements:
Opposition has been raised on many issues important to regular people. Those objections have been brushed aside.

Clearly, these aren't "trade" deals. They are really about global governance. Corporate lawyers will sit on shadowy tribunals and hear cases about the environment, labor rights, human rights, public health, food security, internet freedom and financial regulation. But they will base their decisions on the corporate values and corporate-friendly language in the trade deals. They will take no account of the Constitutions or legal traditions of the US, Canada, Australia, Japan or any other country. Language in these "trade" deals becomes the new governance standard for the world.

These deals consolidate power relationships that favor global investors. The values and priorities in these deals bring more wealth and power to those who already have plenty.

These deals will determine how life is organized in 2050.

Every President since Gerald Ford has promised prosperity from each new trade deal. In our lived experience, we've lost millions of jobs, de-industrialized our economy, weakened bargaining power for every worker in America, run a cumulative trade debt approaching $10 trillion and we've lost our strategic advantage in manufacturing to Korea, Japan, Singapore, Germany, Denmark and China.
It is ironic that President Obama, speaking to CEOs from the Business Roundtable, tells the rest of America to trust him. It makes much more sense for him to speak to environmentalists, workers, communities and companies trying to manufacture in the US. Show us why these deals will be good for us, when the opposite has been true up to now.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

On limited victories

Truly, I wish Andrew Coyne's latest actually described policy-making in Canada, and not merely the state of theoretical political debate.

But in fact, we live in a country where "let's consider whether a trade agreement actually has benefits, rather than signing whatever gets shoved in front of us" has been shouted down by two national parties and the corporate press as an extreme view.

In fact, the "progressive" premier put forward as the paragon of leftism is from a government which brags about both trashing regulations for the sake of trashing regulations, and imposing perpetual real-money cuts to the public sector.

And in fact, we're seeing far more Crowns actually privatized (in whole or in part) than we're seeing proposals for any meaningful new public institutions or programs to meet our evolving needs.

Now, it's true that there are more "serious proposals on the table" for progressive ideas than conservative ones. But that's primarily a function of the fact that being serious isn't a prerequisite for the radical changes generally preferred - and regularly implemented - by the right.

Building an effective program or institution requires ample planning, consultation and review. And so we can fully expect people who believe government can and should provide those things to carry out at least some of the necessary advance work on a regular basis.

In contrast, destroying one takes a single swing of the wrecking ball with no previous warning or debate. And right-leaning governments across the country have been following that pattern for decades, with no sign of letting up anytime soon.

At the federal level alone, the Cons have privatized or eliminated core functions of AECL, the Canadian Wheat Board and Canada Post, not to mention set up a ten-figure P3 promotion apparatus put in place to ensure infrastructure is built to benefit big business over the public. And all this based on precisely zero advance discussion, and in the face of evidence showing them to be asinine ideas from any standpoint other than one focused solely on turning public investments into private profits.

Which isn't to say the contest of ideas doesn't matter: obviously if we want to build a better world, it's essential to have some idea what it looks like. But well-crafted, thoughtful policies are only a necessary precondition, not a sufficient one. And there's not much to celebrate as long as the right (in whatever party guise) is able to treat anti-social vandalism as a viable governing strategy.

Tuesday Night Cat Blogging

Accessorized cats.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Monday Morning Links

Miscellaneous material to start your week.

- David Foot and Daniel Stoffman discuss Thomas Piketty's role in highlighting the need to work toward greater equality, while pointing out a few options to increase public revenues from people who can afford to pay them. And Ezra Klein interviews Paul Krugman about inequality (along with a wider range of issues):
Ezra Klein: Do you worry more about wealth inequality or income inequality?

Paul Krugman: Income inequality, but I don't think they're separable issues. We need to worry a lot more about lagging incomes in the bottom half or bottom two-thirds of the income distribution than we worry about soaring incomes at the top. And the people in the bottom two-thirds of the income distribution have hardly any wealth. For them, wealth has gone from essentially zero 30 years ago to essentially zero now. So for them, it's income that is crucial.

The wealth inequality measures are useful because they are, in some ways, a more reliable gauge of what's happening at the top. If incomes fluctuate a lot at the top, you can argue, though it's overstated, that it's a changing cast of people. But the top 0.1 percent in wealth is not an ever-shifting cast of characters.

Ezra Klein: Do you think the story of median and lower-than-median wage stagnation and the story of income inequality are the same story, or different? It seems to me that you can see different patterns. The story of the huge changes in income inequality seems to really be focused in the top three or four percent, and it seems to start about 10 years after media wage stagnation. Or, I guess, to put it another way, do you think we could solve wage stagnation without solving income inequality?

Paul Krugman: Probably not. I think if you really did something about wage stagnation you would find that it would have a pretty strong effect in curbing incomes at the top as well. I think if you try to understand the factors behind soaring incomes at the top, they are many of the same forces that are leading to stagnating incomes for workers. The idea that we can totally separate these things is wrong. It almost harkens back to the Clinton-Blairism. You did have, in the UK at least, a fairly serious attempt in Blair/Brown to tackle poverty and to reduce income inequality, combined with a sympathetic, laissez faire attitude towards the top one percent. It produced results for a while, but in the end, it seems to be economically and politically unsustainable. It gave rise, eventually, to a regime that's doing its best to increase inequality on all fronts.
- Meanwhile, Robert Reich comments on the Republicans' plan to eradicate accurate budget analysis in favour of absolute, evidence-free devotion to the belief that tax cuts inevitably increase revenues.

- Bill Waiser laments the Cons' destruction of our archives and new gathering of information about Canada alike, while Mike De Souza calls out their contempt for access to information in response to some noteworthy requests. But the Cons' dishonesty and secrecy fit perfectly into their political strategy, as Matt Henderson points out that our history doesn't exactly fit with any attempt to create a myth of national exceptionalism. 

- Finally, Owen Jones hopes that a wave of activism in 2014 is just the beginning in restoring government accountability to its citizens.